Healthy Gut = Smart Brain: Is Your Gut Holding Your Brain Hostage?

Is your gut health preventing your brain from functioning at its best? That is the question many scientists are trying to answer today. A while back, in the April issue of Alive, I wrote an article discussing the “The Second Brain” in the gut. The article talked about the enormous number of nerve cells that control the GI tract and how those nerve cells interact with the brain. In this article, we’ll focus on how an unhealthy gut can result in unhealthy brain function.

Most people are comfortable with the concept of our brain and emotional stress affecting the function of our stomachs and intestines, i.e. “nervous stomach,” nausea or diarrhea. The concept of gut function affecting the brain is less known. For many, many years it was thought that the brain completely controlled the gut, and almost every malady has been blamed on our over stressed brain. I agree that stress is a big factor when dealing with many issues including fatigue, hormonal imbalance, and premature aging but much of the time the stress we feel is actually caused or at least increased by inflammation, poor gut function and bacteria imbalance.

Recently there has been a great deal of scientific work outlining the relationship between the brain and our guts. As an example, neurologist David Perlmutter, M.D, wrote a recent book called Grain-Brain, where he discusses in detail how eating gluten (wheat and grain foods) leads to generalized inflammation in the brain by damaging the gut. This damage causes protein leakage through the gut wall, leading to a severe immune reaction. This “supercharging” of the inflammatory response causes brain degeneration, which could lead to Alzheimer’s Disease.

We now know that problems in the gut directly impact our body, especially the brain, causing depression, anxiety, memory loss, and sleeping problems. Because our central nervous system is made of exactly the same cells as our gut nervous system (enteric nervous system) they can and do communicate in an important way. In fact, the two are connected by a large nerve—the Vagus nerve—that takes all the information on motility, inflammation, and permeability from the gut and sends that to the brain. As a matter of fact, it turns out that 90% of the information in the Vagus nerve goes to the brain, not the other way around.

Recent research on probiotics has confirmed this pattern. In 2011 the Journal of Neurogastroenterology reported that the bacteria in our guts, known as Bifidobacterium (“good” bacteria), will normalize anxiety in rats with colitis. In a separate study, a probiotic, Lactobacillus rhamnosus decreased depression and anxiety by increasing GABA, a neurotransmitter that calms the brain.

Research has also shown that fish oil (DHA and EPA) can control the bad bacteria in our gut, decreasing inflammation and improving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). That’s important not only because of gut discomfort, but they have also found that people suffering with irritable bowel have a lower verbal IQ. Those bad bacteria in IBS patients also inhibit the normal and healthy production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Surprisingly, 95% of the body’s serotonin is in the gut. In fact, research psychiatrists can diagnose major depression, pain syndromes, anxiety, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome by testing for toxins produced by pathogenic bad bacteria in the gut.

The clear message here is that we must do everything we can to maintain our gut health in order to have healthy brain function. Things like antibiotics, gluten, grains, and even some of the medicines you are given by your trusted doctor can damage the gut wall and lead to brain degeneration. Caring for this delicate part of our immune system is vitally important in order to have a healthy brain. To accomplish this task, get the help of a practitioner who is knowledgeable in the techniques of improving gut health with appropriate lab testing, treatment and lifestyle changes that put you on the path of improved brain function.

Dr. Don Davis, D.C., DACNB is a BOARD CERTIFIED CHIROPRACTIC NEUROLOGIST in Walnut Creek. He has been serving individuals with chronic pain for 30 years. For information about how you can get a free consultation with Dr. Davis, call (925) 279-4324 (HEAL) or WalnutCreekThyroidInstitute.com